When Melanie Darrigo’s mom was diagnosed with a severe form of dementia, she felt like her mother’s words were escaping her, lost forever. So she did the only thing she could think to save them: painted them on signs.
“Watching my mom slowly be erased, I got desperate looking for words,” Melanie says, her voice breaking, her hands reaching to wipe at tears she couldn’t push down. All around her wooden signs sit on nearby tables and shelves in varying stages of completion. Paint brushes, paint and power tools are scattered about. Two old typewriters sit snug against the far wall behind her.
This is her company, Belle and Summer Co., run from her garage/studio in Hermon, Maine. To fill her Etsy store and supply a nearby Bangor boutique, Melanie creates hand painted signs from all kinds of wood, both reclaimed and pristine, with designs first hand sketched and then printed into stencils from her computer. She types up wedding vows and inspirational quotes on her typewriter, framing them with pressed flowers. She experiments. Has fun. Keeps busy.
“Everybody handles pain differently,” she says with strength and confidence. This place is Melanie’s escape. Her coping mechanism. This business is how she handles pain: with beautiful, handcrafted things.
Last year, Melanie’s mom was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a neurological syndrome that slowly impairs a person’s language and memory. The way Melanie puts it, you “basically lose your communication and your words.” The diagnosis was recently upgraded — “not much of an upgrade” she says quietly — to frontotemporal dementia.
After the diagnosis, Melanie purchased an old typewriter from a Bangor swap site on what was basically a whim. She cleaned it up and got clacking — and I really do mean clacking because, man, that thing is loud.
“So I’m just sitting at the kitchen island, typing, saving words because my mom was losing hers,” Melanie explains. That’s when she started framing quotes and typing up wedding vows for people. Her small daughter and son would forage flowers during their outdoor adventures and bring them back to her, faces alight with glee. She was coping. Life was good.
But her Mom was a lot worse when she went to visit this past February. She’d gone from confusing Melanie with her mom’s sister to losing entire decades of her life. Melanie says she came home and “couldn’t function.”
That’s when her husband stepped in with fresh paint, paintbrushes and scrap wood from construction projects around their property. “Tinker,” he said. She was scared. She asked, “What if it’s horrible?”
And he responded, “Then it’s kindling. We can just burn it. What do you have to lose?”
Melanie jokes they had quite a few fires those first few months. She says it probably took her until June before she was making things she was proud of. The ability to burn the rejects gave her permission from herself to be creative, to fail. It wasn’t long before she was doing her own sanding and woodworking. What started as free-hand painting evolved into stencils as she let a bit more of her inner perfectionist shine through.
All because, Melanie says, “I just wanted to keep words. How else do you preserve a word?”
For her there’s just something therapeutic about the sound of a sander and the feeling of making something with your hands. The quotes and phrases she chooses remind her that even though there are horrible things happening in the world, there’s good stuff too.
Some of her work is fairly basic — blocks that say, shine, smile, pray, happy, blessed.
Other things are more personal, like a sign that says, “Hold on, let me overthink about it.” Melanie says she is “notorious” for that. Another of her favorites comes from a moment with her daughter, who ran out the back door last fall and screamed, “The leaves are calling and I must jump!”
It’s been a few months since Melanie started with the signs, and every day she feels herself getting a little bit better, learning a few more tricks. She’s tried tons of different paints and processes to get her desired look. Milk paint, chalk paint, craft paint, latex house paint — there are different uses for all different kinds. She looks back on some of her signs from the first few months and winces a bit.
When I ask her if she feels like she’s captured the words she was so desperate to memorialize, she stops for a moment and thinks.
“I hope so,” she says quietly. “I hope so.”
Belle and Summer Co.